News World Omicron COVID variant was already in Netherlands before South Africa identification
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Omicron COVID variant was already in Netherlands before South Africa identification

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus says Omicron shows COVID-19 is 'not done with us'. Photo: AP
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It has been one week since the world first learnt about the new coronavirus variant, Omicron.

Evidence now suggests it was circulating in Europe before it was detected by health experts in South Africa.

Dutch health authorities said on Wednesday morning that its RIVM health institute has found Omicron in samples dating from November 19 and 23.

It had previously been thought that two flights that arrived from South Africa on Sunday (local time) had brought the first cases of the variant to the Netherlands.

Further tests show those passengers have tested positive to a number of different strains of Omicron.

“This means that the people were very probably infected independently from each other, from different sources and in different locations,” a RIVM spokesman said.

South Africa first reported the discovery of a new variant to the United Nations health agency on November 24 after scientists ran tests on a sample taken from November 9.

The Dutch discovery throws up more questions about the variant raising anxiety levels across the world.

The WHO has warned that the global risk from the variant is “very high” and early evidence suggests it could be more contagious.

Preliminary evidence raises the possibility that the variant has mutations that could help it both evade an immune-system response and boost its ability to spread from one person to another.

Despite the global worry, doctors in South Africa are reporting patients are suffering mostly mild symptoms.

But they warn that it is early and most of the new cases are in people in their 20s and 30s, who generally do not get as sick from COVID-19 as older patients.

Search for Omicron here

Back in Australia, health teams are busy contact tracing after it was revealed the new variant is circulating in communities in New South Wales.

That state has introduced tougher penalties for breaching quarantine.

Border changes mean international travellers entering NSW and Victoria will need to isolate for 72 hours and take a COVID-19 test.

A second test must be taken on day six after arriving in NSW, and between days five and seven in Victoria even after leaving quarantine.

NSW has increased its fines to $5000 for those who fail to comply with quarantine or testing requirements, up from $1000. The fine for corporations breaching requirements has been doubled to $10,000.

On Tuesday, state and territory leaders agreed to avoid Omicron lockdowns while scientists gathered more information.

An emergency meeting came as it was confirmed a traveller who had tested positive to the Omicron variant had spent at least two days in Sydney and the Central Coast while infectious.

The woman in her 30s was the fifth NSW confirmed case of the latest variant. She had arrived from southern Africa last week, before the new border restrictions and testing requirements.

NSW Health has listed numerous shops the woman visited in Westfield Parramatta, as well as a supermarket at Top Ryde.

She also visited a grocer and two fast food restaurants in Wyong and North Wyong on Friday night, as well as a Wadalba supermarket.

The woman visited another supermarket at Toukley on Saturday afternoon.

People using QR codes to check into venues via the ServiceNSW app can find case alerts in their check-in history.

How long has Omicron been in the community?

The Dutch announcement further muddies the timeline on when the new variant actually emerged.

Other European nations are also running tests on cases detected there, in order to help experts piece together how the variant has travelled across the world.

Authorities in the eastern German city of Leipzig said they had confirmed an infection with the Omicron variant in a 39-year-old man who had neither been abroad nor had contact with anyone who had been.

Leipzig is in the eastern state of Saxony, which currently has Germany’s highest overall coronavirus infection rates.

Japan and France have also announced their first cases of the new variant.

French authorities confirmed its presence in the French island territory of Reunion in the Indian Ocean.

Patrick Mavingui, a microbiologist at the island’s research clinic for infectious diseases, said the person who has tested positive for the new variant is a 53-year-old man who had travelled to Mozambique and stopped in South Africa before returning to Reunion.

The man was placed in quarantine.

He has “muscle pain and fatigue,” Mr Mavingui said, according to public television Reunion 1ere.

A day after banning all foreign visitors as an emergency precaution against the variant, Japan also confirmed its first case, in a visitor who had travelled from Namibia.

A government spokesman said the patient, a man in his 30s, tested positive upon arrival at Narita airport on Sunday.

He was isolated and is being treated at a hospital.

WHO says travel bans aren’t the answer

Uncertainty about the source of Omicron hasn’t stopped wary countries from rushing to impose travel restrictions, especially on visitors coming from southern Africa.

Those moves have been criticised by South Africa – and the WHO has urged against them, noting stopping travel will have limited effect.

Cambodia barred entry to travellers from 10 African countries, two weeks after the country reopened its borders to fully vaccinated travellers.

While it has urged against border closures, the WHO has stressed that while scientists are hunting evidence to better understand this variant, countries should accelerate vaccinations as quickly as possible.

WHO head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus voiced concern that some countries are introducing blanket measures aimed at the variant that he said were “not evidence-based or effective on their own” and were penalising southern African countries that reported the strain so quickly.

“We still have more questions than answers about the effect of Omicron on transmission, severity of disease, and the effectiveness of tests, therapeutics and vaccines,” Dr Tedros said.

The WHO said national authorities in countries of departure, transit and arrival may apply a multi-layered approach to mitigate risk so as to delay or reduce importation or exportation of the Omicron variant.

“Measures may include screening of passengers prior to travel and/or upon arrival, and use of SARS-COV-2 testing or quarantine of international travellers after thorough risk assessment,” it said.

All measures should be commensurate with the risk, time-limited and applied with respect to travellers’ rights, it said.

“Blanket travel bans will not prevent the international spread, and they place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods,” WHO advised.

The WHO, in its latest guidance to authorities and travellers, says people over 60 years of age and those with underlying health conditions should be advised to postpone travel as they are at higher risk of disease and death.

-with agencies